Warnings on Acai Berry Online Offers Amplify

dietingaidABCNews Photo Illustration

The ads are everywhere now: acai for weight loss, acai for sexual dysfunction, acai for cancer, acai with a free trial that can cost hundreds of dollars and leave you on hold for hours trying to stop more charges.

The growing problem of questionable acai sales on the Internet has reached proportions never before seen by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the center.

Today, the attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest will issue a warning about credit card schemes peddling supplements made from the acai berry.

VIDEO: A warning has been issued on questionable online sales of acai berry.Play

"Once we started looking at it we saw it was so widespread, so rampant, that we felt that we had to do something," said Schardt.

Aside from the questionable "free trial offers" targeted by the Better Business Bureau earlier this year, Schardt said he has doubts about even some of the benign nutritional claims for acai.

"It's sometimes touted as the fruit with the most antioxidants, that's probably not true," he said. A full comparison of the acai to other fruits will be discussed in the CSPI's report today.

"In terms of weight loss there's no reason why a fruit like that would have any particular effect," Schardt said.

Schardt said Blumenthal's office quickly took up the offer to do something about the scam complaints. Together with CSPI, Blumenthal will detail more of the most questionable sites at today's press conference and explain how consumers can make safe purchases online.

But even if there are ways to reduce the financial risk of signing up for these "free trial offers," Schardt remains skeptical because there is no evidence to back up the weight-loss and other specific health claims of many of these products.

"There's no evidence that they work and you're just asking for trouble if you're trying to deal with one of these companies," he said.

The Better Business Bureau's Warnings

Those "free" 14-day trial offers for "super food" diet supplements claiming celebrity endorsements may be too good to be true, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The bureau released a statement this January warning consumers to be wary of online sales offering acai berry-related weight loss products, saying the marketing of these products is often misleading. The bureau said it has received "thousands" of complaints from consumers about online sales of acai berry products.

In a scheme called "negative option" advertising, dozens of companies nationwide offer "free" trials of acai diet products, claiming endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, Rachael Ray and others, but then charge month after month unless the consumer cancels the order, according to the bureau.

"BBB [the Better Business Bureau] can't speak to the restorative or weight-loss properties of acai-based products, but we are taking companies to task for their misleading sales and marketing practices," bureau spokesman Steve Cox said in a statement.

"Many businesses across the country are using the same selling model for their acai products: They lure customers in with claimed celebrity endorsements and free trial offers, and then lock them in by making it extremely difficult to cancel the automatic delivery of more acai products every month," he said in the release.

The endorsements are also misleading, according to the bureau, and some lawyers representing those celebrities have already gone after these online companies.

"Consumers should be aware that Oprah Winfrey is not associated with nor does she endorse any acai berry product or online solicitation of such products. Attorneys for Harpo are pursuing any companies that claim such an affiliation," said Don Halcombe, spokesman for Harpo Productions, Winfrey's production company. Rachael Ray has also complained to companies that falsely claim she has endorsed their products.

Consumers can check www.bbb.org to get a "reliability report" on particular companies before purchasing an online product.

"These companies are simply abusing general acai berry endorsements from well-known, trusted celebrities by using it as a tacit endorsement of their company and products specifically," added the bureau's Cox.

"Consumers trust Oprah and unfortunately, if they are tricked into believing that she is putting her stamp of approval on a product then they are definitely more likely to purchase it," he said.

Acai Berry Subscriptions Hard to Cancel

Two of the companies named by the Better Business Bureau are Central Coast Nutraceuticals and FX Supplements. FX Supplements offers a risk-free trial of products such as Acai Berry Maxx, for the cost of shipping and handling. However, if consumers do not cancel within the trial period they are sent additional bottles every month and are billed $85.90, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Complaints to the bureau in Fort Worth, Texas, showed consumers had a difficult time canceling subscriptions from FX Supplement via the e-mail provided by the company. In some cases the e-mail address did not work. Several consumers were forced to close their bank accounts or cancel credit cards.

ABCNews.com called FX Supplements at a number provided on the company Web site and received an automated message that said, "This number has been disabled."

Similarly, the bureau serving Central, Northern and Western Arizona has received more than 1,400 complaints for Central Coast Nutraceuticals. The company sells acai, hoodie and male enhancement products, some with ads claiming endorsements from Winfrey.

After the free trial, consumers who no longer wish to receive the monthly supply must cancel their subscription or be billed $40 monthly. Some customers complained of a 75-minute hold time on calls to the company. Others said unauthorized charges were made on their credit cards, according to the bureau.

An automated operator from Central Coast Nutraceuticals told ABCNews.com that "due to the popularity of the product, there are unusual hold times -- 38 minutes."

The Better Business Bureau provided ABCNews.com with phone numbers for FX Supplements and Central Coast Nutraceuticals that matched the phone numbers the companies had posted on their Web sites. Both numbers placed callers into long delays with automated messages.

In December, when asked about the company's business practices, Braybon Spier of Fit Factory, Central Coast Nutraceuticals' partner company, told ABCNews.com that the Web site does contain the information, but people don't read the "fine print" when placing their acai orders. "But we do have a lot of satisfied customers who have lost weight. I personally use it myself."

The Better Business Bureau says buyers should beware of these types of practices.

"Dozens of companies across the country are doing the same thing," bureau spokeswoman Alison Southwick told ABCNews.com. "Maybe they are selling juice instead of supplements, but it's similar kinds of sales practices."

Acai Products See Sales Boom

Annual sales of acai products exceeded $15 million last year, up from $500,000 in previous years, according to the bureau. The so-called "super food" has been praised for its antioxidant properties on television shows and on social networking sites, with some claiming it fights cancer, aging and weight gain.

In November, according to the bureau, more than 1.5 million people searched for the term "acai" on Google. Online ads and Web sites often include a photo of a celebrity -- such as Winfrey -- and falsely claim that she endorses the acai as a weight-loss miracle.

While the acai's nutritional benefits have been mentioned on the air frequently, the berry's alleged ability to aid weight loss has often been misconstrued in these ad campaigns, according to the BBB.

Columbia University heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, who appears on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as a medical expert, told ABCNews.com that he had never officially endorsed acai.

"Acai is a powerful antioxidant," said Oz. "Colorful, dark foods like red wine, pomegranates, concord grapes, blueberries -- they call them brain berries -- are full of nutrients."

As far as those weight loss properties, Oz said, "I'd be surprised if by itself acai could help."

Harvested as a deep purple pulp from 60-foot palm trees, acai (pronounced "ah-sigh-ee") is exported as a thick pulp and sold in a capsule, powder or juice form at health food stores and online.

Acai products are distributed through such stores as Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Jamba Juice, as well as many conventional grocery chains and the Web.

Acai Berry Largely Unknown Until 2001

The berry was virtually unknown outside the United States until 2001, when brothers Ryan and Jeremy Black began to sell acai through Sambazon Inc., promoting its antioxidant properties.

Today billion-dollar beverage giants, including Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos., are adding the fruit to their beverage lineups, according to The Wall Street Journal. It's also found in products from Stonyfield Farm and Haagen-Dazs. Procter & Gamble Co. recently infused acai into its Herbal Essence shampoos and conditioners.

Online, Sambazon sells acai in various forms -- frozen pulp, smoothie, juice, capsules and powder -- but does not offer the "hype" about weight loss or the "free" trial offer.

Although Sambazon does rely on endorsements from some celebrities, like skateboarder Bob Burnquist, the company does not reference either Oprah or Dr. Oz on its Web site.

The company has also been barraged with telephone calls and complaints on its Web site, acai.com, from consumers who have confused Sambazon with companies that use the misleading practices, according to co-founder Ed Nichols.

"All day, every day since this thing started, we've been hearing, 'Please stop charging my credit card now,'" said Nichols. "But when people do reach out to us and say help get us out of this scam, we educate them about our sincere products."

Sambazon stands by its product, which it makes in the company factory in Brazil and ships directly to buyers.

"Anybody can go down to Brazil and buy acai and call a fruit broker, but it spoils almost immediately after picking," he said.

Lauren Cox contributed to this report